Review: Little by Edward Carey

Little by Edward CareyThis gorgeously grotesque book features body parts of all shapes and sizes. Go out and pick up a copy today. Just don’t read it while you’re eating.

Little fictionalises the life of Madam Tussaud. Born in the eighteenth century, this famous woman narrowly escaped the guillotine in France before touring Britain with a macabre set of death masks taken from the Revolution’s victims.

This book was an eye opener for me as I’ve never visited Madam Tussaud’s waxwork museum in London. In fact, I’ve always thought the exhibitions sounded…. sinister.

Luckily, author Edward Carey didn’t have the same qualms. After leaving university he searched for odd-jobs in London, briefly working at the museum where he became fascinated by its unusual founder.

Is it true?

What makes this novel stand out isn’t the ending (we’ve all heard of Madam Tussaud’s museum) but the life that precedes it. Edward Carey’s clearly done his research but a bit of googling shows parts of Tussaud’s life are a blur. Like many fascinating figures she probably embellished her own history. As a result, this novel uses a fair bit of artistic license. 

Parts of the story are inspired by facts; its journey starts with the birth of Anne Marie Grosholtz, the future Madam Tussaud.

Her widowed mother takes employment as a housekeeper in Switzerland for Philip Curtuis, a doctor who copies human body parts in wax for the local hospital.

Socially isolated Curtuis teaches Marie some of his art and takes her with him when he moves to Paris to make a living by casting and displaying the wax heads of the famous (and the infamous, including thieves and murderers).  

Fact or Fiction?

Little’s dark plot is attention-grabbing. I have no idea whether some sections are fact or fiction but they’re all equally compelling. For example, I hope the real Madam Tussaud’s parents had happier lives than the grisly, misfortune-filled ones shown here. 

Marie’s stint as an art tutor for the French King’s childish sister is also fascinating and seems to be based on claims made by the real museum’s founder. But, there’s no way to know whether she really brushed shoulders with royalty (or was forced to sleep in a cupboard, as this book suggests). 

Additionally, Carey throws in a character who you’ll love to hate: The landlady who bullies Marie into servitude and keeps Curtius under her sway. I have no idea whether she’s fictional but her evil-stepmother-style behaviour is terrifyingly readable.

Heads Will Roll

To me, Marie comes across as a real person with a strong, consistent voice. Unlike her landlady’s sensitive son, she’s astute and becomes desensitised to the body parts she handles. She isn’t broken by her harsh treatment and succeeds in spite of the other people she meets.

Though the details in Little are sometimes sickening, from the author’s macabre illustrations (supposedly drawn by Marie) to the ghoulish masks she creates from decapitated royalty, the main theme is her longing for security, creativity and happiness.

Verdict: Little is a portrait of a talented woman who survived a turbulent time period. This is a good read for fans of historical fiction – as long as they have strong stomachs. 

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